Eugenics in America

Fitter families article appearing in Popular Science magazine in 1932 | Courtesy of PBS.org
Fitter families article appearing in Popular Science magazine in 1932 | Courtesy of PBS.org

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a boom in scientific knowledge and understanding that influenced virtually all aspects of American life. One area that was gaining popularity among the scientific community, doctors, and even politicians, was that of eugenics. Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin to Charles Darwin, came up with the idea of eugenics as a way to improve future generations of the human race by selecting desirable human traits and eliminating the undesirable traits.1 Though not a new concept–it has been found in Plato’s Republic (c. 378 BCE) and in Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623)–it became popular in the United States when Mendelian genetics became more widely accepted by American scientists during the Progressive Era.2

Following World War I, the United States became a world power and many citizens feared that the large influx of immigrants would bring political and economic failure. Scientists began to convince doctors and politicians, who in turn convinced the American public, that the key to maintaining world peace was democracy, capitalism, and eugenics.3 It was believed that by controlling the reproduction of humans, some disabilities and illnesses could be eradicated. If scientists could remove mental illness as well as intellectual and physical disabilities from American society, then the United States could have a stronger human race, maintaining its dominance of the world stage.4  In an effort to make this happen, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) opened in New York in 1910, funded largely by the Carnegie Foundation. The primary mission of the ERO was “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family” through genetics.5

The ERO believed that certain groups had too much “feeble-mindedness,” and that eliminating that genetic trait would make Americans better people. “Feeble-minded” people included those who were mentally retarded, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, diseased with tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis, blind, deaf, deformed, poor, or simply a ne’er-do-well. The ERO also believed these traits to be more predominant in certain groups of people, especially southern and eastern Europeans and Asians.6 The ERO launched a public education campaign to inform people of the problems with “feeble-mindedness” with displays at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934 as well as fitter family and better baby contests at county and state fairs throughout the country. By the early 1930’s, public schools and colleges were educating students on eugenics through health and science classes. Advertising even got in on the eugenics bandwagon by promoting human breeding as being similar to breeding livestock and raising better crops and just as important to the success of America.7

A poster found at a state fair | Courtesy of NPR.org

In order to improve the human family, advocates of eugenics began to think that the best way to stop these illnesses was a twofold solution: stop the “undesirable” people from immigrating into the country, and stop the “feeble-minded” people already here from reproducing. The Immigration Act of 1924 was a result of the eugenics movement’s attempt to keep the “undesirables” from southern and eastern Europe from entering the country by using strict entrance quotas. It also banned Asian immigrants completely. (This act would not be changed until the 1960’s.) Next, the eugenics movement began to encourage states to pass laws that allowed compulsory sterilization of anyone that received any type of public assistance, especially those in mental institutions. Thirty-two states acted quickly to pass such laws that called for mandatory sterilization of anyone deemed “feeble-minded” by the state, including some children as young as nine years old.8

1935 sterilization map | Courtesy of PBS.org

The Supreme Court became involved in the eugenics movement in 1927 when it ruled on the case of Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck was a poor, young adult with slightly below average intelligence that had been institutionalized when she accused a rich boy of raping her and causing her to have a child out-of-wedlock. The institution decided she was “feeble-minded,” and since she was fertile, she therefore needed to be sterilized. Carrie refused to agree to being sterilized and the case was finally brought to the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 in favor of allowing forced sterilization for eugenic purposes only. Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote the majority opinion: “It is far better for the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for a crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”9 He added specifically about Carrie Buck that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”10

A eugenics poster | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The eugenics movement reached its height of popularity in America in the mid- to late-1930’s. City governments embraced the concept of eugenics because it blamed the problems of inner cities, crime, and poverty, on the humans and not on the inadequate living conditions forced upon the human poor.11 Prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and care institutions reported that many of their inhabitants were repeat offenders with many of their patients being related to one another. As a result, the institutions supported eugenics because it would reduce their operating costs by lowering the number of people needing services once all the “feeble-minded” were sterilized.12 At no time did anyone stop to consider that many of the diseases and illnesses that eugenics hoped to eradicate were not genetic, but instead were caused by environmental factors.13 During this time period, almost 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized.14

Meanwhile, in Europe, “Nazi Germany adopted American measures to identify and selectively reduce the presence of those deemed to be ‘socially inferior’ through involuntary sterilization.”15 It did not take long for the Nazis to extend their eugenics movement to include the elimination of Jewish and other non-Aryan populations. Only at this time did many people in America begin to rethink their stance on eugenics, with many politicians, scientists, and doctors denouncing the ERO. The ERO was officially closed in 1939 when the Carnegie Foundation pulled their funding, bringing the eugenics movement in the United States to an unofficial end.16

However, forced sterilization still continued in the United States, especially through the California prison system and in the southern states where poor southerners were often sterilized as a means to end poverty. These practices began to taper off in the 1970’s as people became more aware of human rights and equality.17 Yet it was not until the 1978 Federal Sterilization Regulations were created to prevent the forced sterilizations performed in the country that most of these practices ended.18 Even so, Buck v Bell has never been overturned and was cited most recently as precedent in the case of Vaughn v Utz, which was heard before the US Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit in 2001.19

While the eugenics movement can be considered a darker part of American history, several good things have resulted from this time. During the Nuremberg trials, the defense cited the case of Buck v Bell in support of the sterilizations they performed on people.20  Judges at these trials decided there was a need for oversight of all experiments done on human test subjects and the Nuremberg Code of 1947 was written to provide such guidelines, which are still used today.21 After this time, many of the labs devoted to the pseudoscience of eugenics changed the focus of their research to ethical genetic advancements and have made many of the genetic discoveries we now have.22 Lastly, in the effort of the eugenics movement to create fitter families, many states adopted incest laws for the first time during the 1920’s and 1930’s.23

  1.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  2. Encyclopedia  Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson; Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  3.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  4. Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  5.  Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  6.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  7.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  8.  Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  9. Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  10.  Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  11. Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  12. Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  13. Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  14.  Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  15. Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v.”Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  16.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  17. Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  18.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  19.  Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  20. Andrea DenHoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” The New Yorker, April 27, 2016.
  21. Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.
  22.  Encyclopedia Britannica, January 2017, s.v. “Eugenics,” by Philip K. Wilson.
  23.  Karen Norrgard, “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs,” Nature Education 1, no. 1 (2008): 170.

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This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Brianda Gomez

    The Unites States was seeing a lot of mental illnesses and physical disabilities. The united states wanted a strong human race to keep dominating. It was during this time that the eugenics movement was a dark part of history. The Nuremberg trials consisted of heartless doctors experimenting on victims without their consent. As a result the Nuremberg code of 1947 was rules that scientists now had to follow for experimentation on human subjects. Great article!

  2. Avatar
    Amanda Figueroa

    I really enjoyed reading this article as you made it very interesting and provided my facts to back up your information. I had never read into the Eugenics, so I am speechless as to how scientists promoted this idea of improving the future by ‘elimination the undesirable traits’. This is sickening and just plain out wrong and the worst part is that it was back up by the law as well.

  3. Avatar
    Mark Martinez

    A well written and thought out article. It just seems a little funny that this project that would treat humans as guinea pigs compares us to guinea pigs. That through special “paring” of people would eventually lead to a better human race. These people at eugenics sound like a certain person that stared World War II. Stopping immigration because of undesirables entering the states sounds a little racist when you see what’s implied. It still unbelievable how the country was alright with sterilizing children.

  4. Avatar
    Robert Rees

    When i first learned about eugenics I learned of the enormous impact it had on the American legal system. However, I was not taught just how long eugenics remained a part of American society. To learn that eugenics practices were still being carried out as late as the 1970’s. Eugenics truly is a horrible pseudoscience that hopefully does not rise to similar levels of influence anywhere else in the world.

  5. Avatar
    Josemaria Soriano

    I really enjoyed reading an article on this topic. Eugenics is a doctrine and scientific practice nor so known by present generations. As the saying goes: if you forget the past, do not be surprised that you commit it again. Obviously, eugenics practices based their postulates on the manipulation of the Darwinian postulates. They used their concept of natural selection, that is, the survival of the strongest, to foster a highly racist and inhuman ideology. Eugenics was a movement that caused the Jewish genocide committed by the Nazis. After World War II, the Nazi military and leaders were prosecuted and punished, but nobody prosecuted the eugenics scholars of the Third Reich. Pitifully, this idea that there are superior races is an idea that is still alive in some scientists today, ideologies that the US government should completely prohibit. As a foreigner, it seems to me terrifying that a group of racists such as the Ku Klux Klan, so far has not been vetoed. It is time to make a frontal fight against racism in all its forms, including its scientific form: eugenics.

  6. Avatar
    Sebastian Castro Ramos

    I had never heard about the concept of eugenics before. It is scary to know that something like this was promoted by many scientists and was backed up by the law. This idea similar to selective breeding would reduce us to animals. I can’t believe this practice did not cease until the 70’s. Excellent article, very deep and informative. It presents information you won’t find often.

  7. Avatar
    Crystalrose Quintero

    Right from the beginning, the second sentence provided a unique fact that the person to be described in this article was a cousin to the famous Charles Darwin. In saying that, it really grabs me and has me wanting to read more. The first paragraph really is full of information about the birth eugenics. However it does this in a concise manner, of only 8 sentences approximately. Denoting that it stems during the time of mendelian genetics allows me to relate to the biology aspect of what I’ve learned while in college. It’s also very interesting to know that although it was big during 19-20 century, it had been around since the 17th century. It was even more interesting to find that the scientists were attempting to brainwash and convince citizens that eugenics would help world peace.

  8. Avatar
    Edith De Loera

    Eugenics, coerced sterilization, is an extremely shameful part of America’s past. It was used to control unwanted populations, driven by conceptions of science and social control. The fact that the sterilization procedures were mostly done without full consent, is hard to believe. I just cannot think of any reason as to why such a troubled practice was thought to be acceptable. What is most terrifying to me is that Adolf Hitler was inspired by these ideas.

  9. Avatar
    Alexis Soto

    I remember the first time I learned about Eugenics, I was left in wonder. How could this pseudoscience have a profound impact on American society? How could our legal system uphold this idea as a legal standard? The reality is that science has led us as a nation to commit despicable acts in the name of science or human progression. This is just one chapter in a book of horrors. I believe it important to teach the populace of the horrors of our past so we may not make the same mistakes in the future. Eugenics

  10. Avatar
    Faisal Alqarni

    Hi Tyler, reading your article I thought I was reading a science fiction script because of the twisted way of thinking promoted by some of the greatest minds that supposedly came out of America in the 1900’s. The fact that it was believed that by getting rid of the weakest would make better societies is a fallacy and I am glad that this eugenics programs really did not last long. However, to know that laws enforcing these separatist activities lasted till the 1960’s is really sad. To know that such a practice was supported even by the highest court in America is scary really. I did learn an interesting fact that this eugenics movement in the U.S. inspired Hitler’s own eugenics ideology. I do however believe that this eugenics mentality has not been

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